Vatican scientist attacks Cardinal’s ‘groundless’ fears, reports Dan Frank A TOP Vatican scientist has crossed swords with an influential Austrian cardinal over an article in which Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn claimed that “neo-Darwinian” evolutionary theory is incompatible with Catholic faith.
Fr George Coyne, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, expressed concern at a residual “nagging fear” in the Catholic Church that the universe as perceived by science – billions of years old and in which life evolved through random variation and natural selection – was one that “escapes God’s dominion”.
He dismissed this fear as “groundless”. There should be no conflict between science and faith, he said, because “science is completely neutral with respect to... theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions”.
“[Catholic faith] is rooted in a belief that everything depends on God, or better, all is a gift from God,” he said. Fr Coyne rejected pantheism the belief that the universe is identical with God — and naturalism — the belief that the universe could exist independently of God. But he also noted that science speaks of a God quite different from the omnipotent and omniscient God of scholastic philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas. Catholic faith, he said, is “radically creationist” because it affirms that the universe is utterly dependent on, and wholly sustained by, God not because it demands a God who continually tinkers and interferes with his creation.
Fr Coyne was responding to a July 7 article in the New York Times by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, a former student and close friend of Pope Benedict XVI, who claimed that the belief that evolution occurred through random variation rather than divine design was an “abdication of intelligence”.
In the article Cardinal Schönborn called a landmark speech by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, in which the pontiff called evolution “more than a theory”, “vague and unimportant”.
Subsequently asked to clarify his position, Cardinal Schönborn seemed to backtrack slightly. He told the National Catholic Reporter that evolutionary theory could only explain the manner in which life developed, not why it happened. “For Catholic thinking it was clear from Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis that evolutionary theory can be valid to understand certain mechanisms, but it can never be seen or accepted as a holistic model to explain the existence of life,” he said.
He quoted a 2004 document from the International Theological Commission, which has often been cited as affirming evolutionary theory, in his defence.
Although the document said that divine providence is compatible with both design and random variation, one section stated: “[From] the Catholic perspective, neoDarwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.” This is much closer to Fr Coyne’s view. Fr Coyne, who divides his time between the Vatican Observatory and the University of Arizona, called John Paul’s statement “epochmaking”. Writing in The Tablet he defended the role of random chance in the development of the universe in general and life specifically. But he compared God’s relationship to the world with that of a parent to its child. “A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood,” he said. “Words that give life are richer than mere commands.” He argued that the classical debate as to whether human life came about by chance or design was “no longer valid”. Science, he said, has shown that the universe contained all the ingredients for life at the moment of the Big Bang. “The meaning of chance and necessity must be seen in light of that fertility,” he said. “[God] is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves.”